In a joint investigation from the Texas Tribune and Houston Chronicle, reporters looked into workplace safety at oil refineries 10 years after an explosion at a BP refinery in Texas City, Texas, left 15 workers dead and injured another 180. Unfortunately, reporters found that “though no single incident has matched the 2005 devastation, a two-month investigation finds the industry’s overall death toll barely slowed.”
In the four-part series, reporters chronicle what went wrong at the Texas City refinery, explore the aftermath and talk with survivors, and analyze data showing where and how refinery workers continue to lose their lives on the job. Among the investigation’s top findings: 58 workers have died at U.S. refineries since the 2005 Texas City explosion, which is just slightly fewer than in the decade before; federal officials have documented about one fire every week at refineries in the past eight years; and regulators don’t have the data they need to accurately track fatalities and monitor safety within refineries.
In the series’ fourth installment, “A Deadly Industry,” reporters Jim Malewitz, Jolie McCullough, Ben Hasson and Lise Olsen offer an exhaustive list of worker deaths at refineries culled from OSHA records, government investigations, newspaper archives and legal filings. They write:
The public can easily search data at the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which records deaths and injuries reported across all industries. But typing the code for “Petroleum Refining” — 2911 — into the agency’s query tool only reveals a small fraction of all who died at refineries.
Oil refiners have increasingly contracted out some of their most dangerous jobs to companies that are classified elsewhere in the federal system.
The many categories include “3443, Fabricated Plate Work,” “1799, Special Trade Contractors, Not Elsewhere Classified” and “1629, Heavy Construction, Not Elsewhere Classified.”
In the 2005 Texas City blast, for instance, all of the 15 workers killed were contractors. None of their deaths show up in the federal government’s annual tally for the refining industry.
To read the full series, visit the Texas Tribune.
In other news:
EHS Today: Last week, McDonald’s employees filed OSHA complaints against 28 McDonald’s restaurants in 19 cities, claiming the fast food giant and its franchisees are overlooking serious safety risks, such as greasy floors, minimal protective equipment and no access to basic first aid kits. The workers said understaffing and pressures to work too fast are contributing to safety risks and injuries, writes Sandy Smith. With the support of Fight for $15, a grassroots movement to raise wages in the fast food industry, workers spoke at a news conference about their experiences, telling reporters that management had told workers to use condiments such as mustard to treat hot oil burns. During the news conference, organizers also released a new survey of fast food workers, finding that 79 percent have been burned in the past year. Smith quoted McDonald’s worker Brittney Berry of Chicago: “My managers kept pushing me to work faster, and while trying to meet their demands I slipped on a wet floor, catching my arm on a hot grill. The managers told me to put mustard on it, but I ended up having to get rushed to the hospital in an ambulance.”
Huffington Post: Today, the U.S. Supreme Court sided with former UPS worker Peggy Young, who sued the company for violating pregnancy discrimination laws. According to reporter Dave Jamieson, the Supreme Court threw out a lower court’s ruling that had blocked Young’s lawsuit, in which she said UPS refused to lighten her physical work duties to accommodate her pregnancy. Jamieson writes: “Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority, said the question the lower court needed to ask was ‘why, when the employer accommodated so many, could it not accommodate pregnant women as well?'”
Los Angeles Times: Reporter Richard Marosi writes that one of Mexico’s biggest harvests destined for the U.S. is in the balance as farmworkers in Baja California go on strike for safer and fairer working conditions. In some instances, the protests were turning violent, with Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights sending observers after protestors complained of arrests and police mistreatment. Marosi reports: “Labor leaders say that growers haven’t given raises in years, refuse to pay overtime and government-required benefits, and allow crew bosses to sexually harass female workers. They are asking agribusinesses to triple wages, now about $10 per day, and comply with all labor laws.”
USA Today: Mike Snider reports that San Francisco officials have unanimously voted in favor of requiring the city’s Municipal Transportation Agency to review a shuttle bus company’s labor practices when issuing permits to use official city bus stops. Snider quoted Scott Wiener, a member of the city and county Board of Supervisors: “Employee shuttles provide an important transportation service for many San Francisco residents and reduce the number of cars on our streets. It’s important to ensure that the drivers of these shuttles are treated fairly in terms of wages and working conditions. This resolution puts the Board of Supervisors firmly on record in support of these working men and women.”
Pittsburgh Business Times: OSHA has issued U.S. Steel a “willful violation” citation and seven serious violations in the wake of a September explosion at its plant in Fairfield, Alabama, that injured one worker and killed two, writes reporter Ethan Lott. According to the article, OSHA found that opening and closing a high-pressure valve while a furnace was operating at the direction of management caused the explosion. Lott quoted local OSHA director Ramona Morris: “Management knew that attempting to operate the valve while the furnace was still running placed workers at risk, yet they allowed them to do it because they didn’t want the production line down for hours. This employer chose productivity over the safety of its workers, and two people died as a result of this decision.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.